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Judge throws out Syringa lawsuit over education broadband contract

Judge throws out Syringa lawsuit over education broadband contract

Idaho Freedom Foundation staff
July 17, 2010

An Idaho district judge has thrown out a lawsuit from Syringa Networks over how Idaho’s Department of Adminsitration awarded the contract for the Idaho Education Network (IEN).

Syringa was shut out of IEN when the state awarded the contract to the telecommunications company Qwest and Education Networks of America (ENA), which had partnered with Syringa on a bid.  Not getting that contract led to Syringa filing the lawsuit, and also affected the budgeting process for IEN and the Department of Administration during this year’s legislative session.

“By ruling in our favor, Judge Owen vindicated the integrity of our purchasing processes as well as the integrity of our employees,” said Department of Administration Director Mike Gwartney, who was one of the defendants named  in the lawsuit.  A Friday news release from the department said the court decision vindicates the department’s decision and its leadership, and that it allows the state to move forward with implementing IEN.  At one point, lawmakers contemplated pushing the kill switch on IEN.

IEN is a program to expand high-speed Internet access in public schools and allow high school students to take a wider array of classes.  Using IEN, students in one classroom could interact in real time with a teacher in another part of the state or the country teaching the class using video-conferencing software.

During the bidding process for the IEN contract, the partnered bid between Syringa and ENA scored higher than Qwest’s bid, according to documents filed in court.  The Department of Administration awarded the contract to Qwest and ENA, but not Syringa, which would’ve offered broadband Internet services similar to Qwest.

Fourth District Judge Patrick Owen ruled Thursday that the state could legally split up the ENA/Syringa bid, and ruled summarily against Syringa’s claim of breach of contract against the Department of Administration.  Judge Owen also ruled that Syringa should have gone through an administrative appeal before suing the state to stop the contract with Qwest.

Officials with Syringa could not be reached for comment regarding the decision.

The controversy surrounding IEN also includes the long-term funding for the program.  Currently, a grant from the Albertsons Foundation, federal stimulus money, and competitive grants are paying for IEN’s expansion.  Those sources of funding will run out within the next few years.  IEN also gets some money from the federal E-rate program, which provides subsidies for schools for new technology.

The spending plan for IEN and the Department of Administration was one of the final pieces of the state budget approved by legislative budget writers.  The Legislature also approved changing the makeup of a the panel that oversees IEN.  That change gives lawmakers and the superintendent of public instruction more seats on the panel and limits the control of the Department of Administration.

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